Killer-app horror flick Countdown leaves Film Editor Matt Taylor despairing for the entire genre
Every so often there comes along a film that has clearly been reverse-engineered from an idea, be it a title, a tagline, or a bad pun (Gnomeo & Juliet is an example of this, as is its somehow-worse sequel, Sherlock Gnomes). Justin Dec’s Countdown is almost certainly one of these films. With the tagline ‘Death? There’s an app for that,’ this below-average horror flick seems to have taken that line and wrenched a story around it in the hope of making it work. Sadly Dec’s efforts have been unsuccessful – no doubt it will surprise literally no one to hear that Countdown fails on just about every front, leaving its audience with the feeling that we’d rather have watched the game show instead.
The story of the film, as far as it can be said to have one, is reasonably simple: an app exists that tells users how until they die. When nurse Quinn downloads the app and sees she has less than a week to live, she scrambles desperately to try and change her fate and stay alive, all while being haunted by a malevolent presence seemingly related to the app. It is a concept that feels like a cheap version of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, as though it has been taken from a teenager’s social media account and made into a full-on feature film. It’s a basic premise that if executed well could have been perhaps a little entertaining, but sadly that is not the case here.
Everything about Countdown feels extremely by-the-numbers. There are no surprises along the way, and everything goes exactly how we expect it to. This is never truer than in the film’s ‘scary’ scenes, which are as predictable as they could possibly be. An over-reliance on cheap, easy jump scares ruins any sort of suspense the film tries to build. Jump scares absolutely have their place in horror, but not when they’re executed like this. Every one of them is the same: a quiet noise followed by silence, and then a really loud noise to try and scare us. What’s especially frustrating is just how utterly cheap some of these are – one towards the beginning of the film genuinely tries to scare the audience by a sudden cut to a character pulling back a shower curtain. The word ‘cheap’ doesn’t come close to describing the disgusting audacity of this. Not four months ago I had the most unsettling cinematic experience of my life with Midsommar; has horror really fallen so far in such a short time? Thank goodness we have people like Ari Aster and Jordan Peele to keep the genre alive.
Unsurprisingly, the characters aren’t any good either. Elizabeth Lail’s Quinn is an annoyingly bland protagonist; Lail herself puts in as much effort as she can, but her material is no good at all, and any attempts at development feel painfully forced. Talitha Bateman plays Quinn’s younger sister Jordan but fails to really leave a mark. Again, she tries, but Dec’s script is abysmal, so she has nothing to work with. Jordan Calloway is a welcome presence as potential-love-interest Matt; his so-called arc is the most interesting part of the movie, but its resolution feels contrived, and fails to impact the rest of the film at all. Tom Segura and PJ Byrne are relegated to painfully unfunny side characters who, again, have no impact on anything.
They do, however, lead into one of the most confusing things about the film: for all the lack of effort put into making Countdown scary, there is a painful and ongoing attempt at social relevance. Segura’s character makes a woefully poor MCU joke at one point, and Peter Facinelli’s subplot tries to deal with the ongoing issue of sexual harassment in the workplace, but this feels entirely out of place within the film. Its liberal politics, although admirable, are shoved in our faces as though to say, ‘look at us, we promise we’re cool!’ Not only does this result in the film feeling extremely disjointed at times, but we are left wishing that Dec would just stop talking politics and get on with the horror. He tries much too hard to be cool and funny, but his focus is entirely in the wrong place: the film would have benefitted much more if he had simply not bothered with this, and focused on making a good horror movie.
Most horror films will hinge on their endings; these are the truly make-or-break moments for them that have the potential to elevate the film or ruin it entirely. If Countdown wasn’t already garbage by the time the climax rolled around, then its ending would have made extra certain it was so. The internal logic in play here in the way Quinn tries to resolve things is flimsy at best and downright lazy at worst, and the way in which it is carried out feels extremely contrived (an all-powerful demon can’t kill more than one person at the same time? Really?). Another aspect of the conclusion is so clumsily foreshadowed by an almost totally irrelevant scene at the beginning of the film that I’m not so sure ‘foreshadowed’ is even the right word. And to top it all off, after the laziness of the preceding 90 minutes, Countdown has the audacity to blatantly sequel-bait itself for no reason at all. If the rest of it wasn’t so poor this might have been admirable; as it stands, it is perfectly in line with what comes before it: lazy, unearned, and downright frustrating.
A bland and uninspired attempt at a horror flick that never manages to outgrow its premise, Countdown stands as one of the worst genre movies of the past few years. If a single film could make us despair for a whole genre, this is unfortunately it.
Countdown is in cinemas now.
Images courtesy of STX Films.